*** out of ****
(for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, and strong language)
Released: December 8, 2017 limited; December 22 wide
Runtime: 123 minutes
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones, Nick Searcy
Brilliant as a fairy tale, moving as a love story, impeccably crafted as cinema. The Shape of Water has the hallmarks of greatness – and they’re all undercut by a garish and unnecessary political bias.
Director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) blends fantasy, romance, and Old Hollywood melodrama into a B-movie creature feature, weaving the terrifying with the tender, and elevating genre to high art. But instead of keeping his parable symbolic, or allowing the audience to draw its own parallels to their own experiences, del Toro imbues his liberalism with literalism, into the very fabric of the story and its characters.
The ham-fisted message is clear: if you don’t strictly adhere to del Toro’s progressive tenets, then you’re the monster.
Set during the early 1960s Cold War, The Shape of Water tells the story of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning lady who works at a top secret U.S. government facility. There, she forms a bond with one of the classified research subjects: a scaly, scary aquatic humanoid – a creature from a Brazilian Lagoon – that shows signs of intelligence, and then a soul.
As their bond grows into love (yes, the two even become intimate), so does the threat to the creature. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the head of the facility, is less interested in testing and more keen on torture, abusing the creature with increasing and excessive cruelty, getting in his ruthless jollies before he plans to kill the beast and gut him like a science lab frog.
Elisa, who speaks through sign language but isn’t deaf, sets a plan in motion to set the creature free, with the help of her closeted gay roommate Giles (Richard Jenkins) and sassy yet kindred African-American co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).
As a premise, this is a superb construct for a fable, one that is strange, mysterious, dangerous, mystical, and mythical. In a narrative that could’ve easily become unwieldy, del Toro balances, builds, and reveals the tale with confidence, always in control even as he takes chances. Visually it boasts one of the lushest palettes since Amelie, but with a darker grit. Some images are truly striking; the stuff of dreams.
But then there’s Shannon’s villain. Despite being perfectly cast and performed, the role is written with too much bile. He’s bigotry incarnate.
You name the prejudice, Strickland spews it. A violent racist misogynist homophobic religious fundamentalist war monger, he embodies every conservative caricature in its most vile form. He doesn’t look to merely abuse his power; he wants to make people suffer, preferably anyone or anything that isn’t a white Christian male American patriot.
Whether its demeaning his minority subordinates at work, assaulting the chained creature with bloodlust, or dominating his wife into submission in bed, Strickland isn’t just a bigot; he’s a sadist, deriving pleasure by inflicting pain and gaining power.
This is a fable so broad archetypes are fitting, they work, but only when they’re either good or evil on broad, universal terms. Instead, del Toro packs on his specific sociopolitical prejudices with a heavy hand and zero nuance, including the idea that sexual repression is the underlying foundation of all oppression.
Anyone liberally minded is humane and righteous; anyone conservative is cruel. These notions ring false at a time when abusive behavior crosses the ideological spectrum, where real world Stricklands aren’t just sickos on the right but also Weinsteins on the left.
Thankfully, there’s the luminous and affecting Sally Hawkins. Bringing every emotion to the surface with raw uninhibited honesty and a heart laid bare, her Elisa is a meek nobody who summons the courage to risk everything – not simply for love, but with genuine compassion.
Jenkins and Spencer provide beautiful supporting work as risk-taking characters of their own, whose own cultural marginalization make them fitting allies in this heroic trio.
There is no subtext in The Shape of Water. It’s all text, even screamed at times, making it impossible to take this movie’s politics and liberalism seriously, let alone persuasively. The artistry we see is stunning, but del Toro’s own view of the world remains far too narrow.